Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Burning Spear

  • Marcus Garvey [Island, 1976] A-
  • Garvey's Ghost [Mango, 1976] B+
  • Man in the Hills [Island, 1976] B+
  • Dry and Heavy [Mango, 1977] B
  • Live [Mango, 1977] B
  • Harder Than the Best [Mango, 1979] A
  • Social Living [Burning Spear, 1980] A-
  • Hail H.I.M. [Burning Spear, 1980] B
  • Farover [Heartbeat, 1982] B+
  • Reggae Greats: Burning Spear [Mango, 1984] A-
  • People of the World [Slash, 1986] B+
  • Mistress Music [Slash, 1988] B
  • Live in Paris [Slash, 1989] B+
  • Jah Kingdom [Mango, 1991] Neither
  • The World Should Know [Heartbeat, 1993] Neither
  • Rasta Business [Hearteat, 1995] Dud
  • The Best of Burning Spear: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection [Island, 2002]
  • Creation Rebel: The Original Classic Recordings From Studio One [Heartbeat, 2004] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Marcus Garvey [Island, 1976]
The most African (and political) sounding reggae LP yet to crease the USA. Deceptive polyrhythms and horns that hint at highlife add to the hypnotic force of Winston Rodney's eerie ululations, resulting in chants so compelling that when Rodney cries "Give me what is mine" you half expect Chris Blackwell to hand over the record company. Or at least to release the group's next album when this one doesn't sell. A-

Garvey's Ghost [Mango, 1976]
Marcus Garvey dub, with the instrumental tracks remixed to create illusions of depth and focus. I know two people who consider it one of the great reggae albums, and oddly enough neither is a doper. Odd because, though I'm not much of a doper myself, I find that marijuana greatly enhances appreciation of this music. Which makes sense--marijuana certainly enhanced its creation as well. But which also makes me suspicious. B+

Man in the Hills [Island, 1976]
The incantations are all but irresistible through most of side one--it is good when a man can think for himself, my old great-grandfather great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather-father-father-father-father-father he's black, don't kill the lion. But as rituals will, this one begins to wear down before it's entirely over. B+

Dry and Heavy [Mango, 1977]
The sweetness of Winston Rodney's vocals here is surprisingly acute--especially on the unselfrighteous nonviolence sermon "Throw Down Your Arms," the generalized love song "Any River," and the title cut, an impressionistically spaced-out reminiscence of his schooldays. But despite the welcome crib sheet I don't find that any of the other tracks holds my attention. That's the way it is with sweetness. B

Live [Mango, 1977]
Top material at Jamaican tempos for a London audience of 2000. But as usual the ceremonial extensions, while appropriate formally, call out for the physical presence of fellow worshippers. And would sound more lifelike in a studio. B

Harder Than the Best [Mango, 1979]
Because reggae is long on groove and short on tune, you sometimes wish you could extricate one from the other, which in a way is what this compilation does: combines the four most haunting cuts from a landmark debut with other highlights plus a dab of dub, as much as I and I need. Political and possessed, with Winston Rodney's hypnotic vocals floating, darting, and echoing over the mix, this one's a gift from the mysterious forces of commerce that shouldn't be passed up. A

Social Living [Burning Spear, 1980]
Less militant and archetypal than Marcus Garvey, this nevertheless lives up to a wonderful title and wonderful title song. In its sinuous vocalizations and giving groove, its single and unison horns, the music is all charity and cooperation--it's why Winston Rodney is preaching "Social living is the best." And yea though he droppeth the names of European countries in "Civilize Reggae," it's reggae and not Europe that's doing the civilizing. A-

Hail H.I.M. [Burning Spear, 1980]
Strange to hear it come down to material in a singer so infused with the spirit. But what I remember is what I don't remember--the difference between the first three songs, "African Teacher" and "African Postman," and "Cry Blood Africans," except that the last one has crying in it. Maybe it's the well-known positivity problem, because when he's angry he comes across: Columbus was a "damn blasted liar" indeed. B

Farover [Heartbeat, 1982]
Ever more delicate backup horns subsume ever more docile backup vocals as his unearthly outcries grow more coaxing, less admonitory. But the end is the same: Winston Rodney is so synchronic that in 1982 he gives up pretty much the same trancy buzz as in 1976. He's just less excited about it. B+

Reggae Greats: Burning Spear [Mango, 1984]
Spear's back-to-Africa wail can enthrall Babylonians with no particular interest in reggae, though it's probably too out for dabblers who consider their Marley and UB40 albums exotic. He's a left-field classic, like Hound Dog Taylor or Jimmy Rogers in blues. Unfortunately, this compilation, devised solely to take its place in Island's new Reggae Greats series, invites hair-splitting. The 1976 debut Marcus Garvey is more of a piece, which matters with a prophet of autohypnosis like Rodney; the 1979 compilation Harder Than the Best configures eight of the same tracks more gracefuly. Scout around for both before putting money down on this substitute. But don't be afraid to settle. A-

People of the World [Slash, 1986]
Like many angry young men before him, Winston Rodney has mellowed with the gathering years and assets. And like many angry young men before him, he's surrendered some edge. Innate musicality plus the right cushy production will sometimes benefit victims of this syndrome, and here he finds the formula, keyed to a horn section that happens to comprise three American women. So all hail unity and the honorable disc-race. B+

Mistress Music [Slash, 1988]
This kicks off with one of Spear's strongest and strangest songs--"Tell the Children," which rather than inculcating them with doctrine informs them she's their mother but Spear's not their father. What's the mystical symbolism, one wonders. Answer: there is none. With the third song called "Woman I Love You" and the fifth all "Girl I love you," I guess this is just music for his mistress--or to be precise, mistresses. B

Live in Paris [Slash, 1989]
Where once Winston Rodney was Spear, here Spear is Rodney's since disbanded band. Thrills and chills come from brass belles and caustic guitar and chameleon keybs, while Rodney's indistinguishable exhortations provide essential atmosphere--a physically compelling aural environment. Kind of like the rhythm section. B+

Jah Kingdom [Mango, 1991] Neither

The World Should Know [Heartbeat, 1993] Neither

Rasta Business [Hearteat, 1995] Dud

The Best of Burning Spear: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection [Island, 2002]
See: Recyclables.

Creation Rebel: The Original Classic Recordings From Studio One [Heartbeat, 2004]
Before he started wailing to wake up the dead, Winston Rodney tried to find a place within the harmony trio format imposed by Studio One's Clement Dodd. This is the record of that struggle--not always as songful as Dodd (or we) might prefer, but whenever you tune in, somebody will do something that makes you ooh inside of a minute. "Door Peeper"? "This Population"? "Weeping and Wailing" (natch)? "Creation Rebel" itself? Those are songs. The "hip hip hooray" of "What a Happy Day"? Saddest ever recorded. A-

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